How Westside fire agencies dealt with brutal heat wave
The brutal heat wave of June 2021 will be remembered for years to come, and Columbia and Washington counties experienced a number of heat-related medical calls.
Eric Smythe, division chief of operations for Columbia River Fire & Rescue, said conditions were difficult.
"It definitely was a challenge," Smythe said. "Most folks who live in Oregon have never seen temperatures of that nature."
Portland recorded a record high of 116 degrees on Monday, June 28. By way of comparison, the record high temperature for Las Vegas is 117 degrees.
For the district, Smythe said, "We saw an average, over the peak of it, two to three medical emergencies a day dealing with some form of heat-related hurts."
Heat stroke is very serious, causing stroke-like symptoms. Smythe said paramedics treat it as a true medical emergency.
CRF&R more commonly sees what's known as heat exhaustion, where people feel light-headed and clammy and may feel the need to vomit.
Tualatin Valley Fire & Rescue, which serves a number of cities west of Portland as well as unincorporated sections of Clackamas, Multnomah, Washington and Yamhill counties, also logged several medical calls during the three-day heat event.
"The totality of the weekend, including Monday (June 28) was a large uptick in calls. We did see a lot of calls related to heat," said Stefan Myers, a public information officer for TVF&R, noting that medical calls responded to reports of dehydration and cases where heat affected people with existing conditions.
Although precise call numbers were not available, Myers said the district experienced a sharp increase in exposure calls, such as people with acute symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
"On Monday, and partly Sunday, we saw a steep increase related to people who had kidney problems, thyroid conditions," Myers said. "Maybe they were taking medications in which it's hard for them to stay hydrated. Dehydration occurs more rapidly."
Myers continued, "You're hitting that third day of extreme temperatures and, of course, that's going to be challenging for our more vulnerable populations."
Monday, the day of the record high temperatures, was particularly busy for TVF&R.
"I'd say about 4 o'clock on Monday, I saw where we had probably about 12 to 15 units that were out on medical calls, all similar to something heat related," Myers said. "That's a high volume for our fire district."
Myers noted that with hot temperatures, even firefighters get dehydrated. Firefighters wearing heavy gear can encounter a fire temperature of up to 1,200 degrees.
"Our chiefs were really conscious of the fact that we need to rotate people, make sure they are getting lots of fluids," Myers said. "Earlier in the day, we really suspended a lot of our training, so that they were not out in the sun, or in the heat, more than they needed to be."
Hillsboro Fire & Rescue was also hopping during the historic heat wave.
Department spokesperson Piseth Pich noted that in addition to an increase in call volume, Hillsboro "also saw an increase in other types of medical calls like single episodes of folks passing out and cardiac arrest."
Pich added, "Not to say there is a direct correlation, but it was coincidental that we also saw an increase in call volume for those types of calls, as well."
On average, TVF&R runs about 35 calls per day from all five of its stations. Pich estimates that over the three-day heat wave, call volume was close to double that.
Noting that there will be more hot weather ahead, Smythe encourages residents during these heat waves to drink plenty of water and avoid outdoor activity during the hottest times of the day.
And if you have a hankering for cracking open a beer on a scorching day, think again. Alcohol will dehydrate you. Your body can lose water, so drinking water is the best form of hydration.
Like everybody else, Smythe does not want to see a repeat of the blistering heat wave of June 2021.
"I hope I don't ever see that again in my lifetime," Smythe said.
But he doesn't see an end to hot conditions soon.
"It is Oregon, it is summertime, and we're going to see temperatures get to 100 or over 100 again sometime before winter hits," Smythe predicted.
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